There’s a lot of hype around travel credit cards. Commercials, many featuring A-list celebrities, promise big rewards and few restrictions. These ads almost make it seem like once you earn enough points to travel somewhere, Alec Baldwin or Samuel L. Jackson will be waiting at the airport to give you your boarding pass, no questions asked.
But here's what actually happens to a lot of people who apply for a travel credit card: They get their card and use it occasionally throughout the year, vaguely planning to go somewhere warm this winter or to finally get to Grandma's for Thanksgiving. When the time to travel comes, they log into their credit card account and discover that they have only earned points worth about $40 or $50 (not even enough to take a 45-minute flight on a discount airline).
After an experience like this, a lot of people simply decided to give their card the scissors treatment. They feel that collecting points is not worth the effort.
But travel credit cards can be worth the effort, if you actually make the effort to learn how to maximize the number of points that you earn. Yes, earning free flights, free hotel stays, and free upgrades are realistic goals if you understand the variables at play in the travel credit card game.
For rewards-seekers, the trick is to find the right card: one that best fits both your travel style and your spending habits.
Where do you fit in with the following types of travel credit card users?
A man heads into Lufthansa's business lounge at Frankfurt International Airport in Germany. (Photo: Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
The frequent flier
Frequent fliers can get a lot of value out of travel credit cards. The best policy for these road and air warriors is to find a card that is issued by the airline that they travel on the most often. This usually provides the best rewards’ value for a couple of reasons.
First of all, airlines give a very high point-per-dollar-spent ratio when people use their airline credit card to purchase tickets. This means that cardholders who travel frequently can earn a free flight quickly. Also, and perhaps more importantly, each point earned can be combined with frequent flier miles to the cardholder climb towards the higher tiers of the airline's loyalty program. Get enough miles and you can achieve "elite" status with your airline, earning perks like priority check-in, pre-boarding, lounge access, and first dibs on free upgrades to business class.
An alternative is to go with a premium credit card like the American Express Platinum or the Visa Black. These cards have good miles-earning potential, and they offer lounge access and concierge service to cardholders. The major positive of these cards is that you can get these premium services and earn a lot of rewards points without being tied to a single airline. The drawback is the exorbitant annual fee (more than $400 for both the Platinum and the Black).
The once-a-year vacationer
Most casual travelers don't fit the profile of George Clooney's character in "Up in the Air." For these people, the ultimate goal is to save money on that once-a-year vacation, perhaps getting a free night or two at a hotel or discounted airfare. The most effective way to earn points for occasional travel like this is to find a niche card that offers a generous points-per-dollar ratio on the kinds of things that you spend the most money on. The American Express Blue Cash Preferred, for example, offers six points per dollar spent on groceries and three points per dollar spent on gas.
There are three reasons that these cards are worthwhile for casual travelers. One, the points add up quickly. Two, you can earn points on things you would be buying anyway (so there is no temptation to buy unneeded extras just to earn more points). Finally, since you are using the card for basic necessities, you earn points consistently throughout the year, and those points will add up over time — provided you remember to use your card every time you shop.
The niche travel cards with the best points-to-dollars-spent ratios generally have an annual fee (in the $45-$75 range). But if you are using them consistently, you will still come out better than if you had a no-annual-fee card that only offered one point per dollar spent.
Photo: jason cox/Shutterstock
The bill payer
Another way to consistently earn points is to run all of your regular expenses through a credit card. It is possible to pay all your household bills with your card and also use it to buy your necessities.
While the once-a-year vacationer's niche card can give you more on gas and groceries, it can only give you one point per dollar on other purchases. A few cards, however, famously double all the points that you earn, giving you two points for each dollar spent on everything (including your bills). The most hyped of these 2X cards is Capital One's Venture Card ($59 annual fee). It gives two points for every dollar spent, regardless of where it is spent. Barclaycard's Arrival MasterCard ($89 annually) has a similar offer, while Bank of America's Travel Rewards card gives 1.5 points per dollar spent without requiring you to pay any annual fee.
The key with these cards — even more so than with other cards — is to pay off the balance every month so that you don’t incur any interest charges that can eat away at the value of your rewards.
Photo: ** RCB **/Flickr
How to get a free trip FAST
The ultimate goal of any travel card user is a completely free hotel stay or round-trip airline ticket. With a handful of cards, this is actually possible after only a few months (if you have good enough credit to qualify).
As you can probably judge from all the ads on TV, the travel reward niche is very competitive. Card companies try to seduce would-be customers with good credit by offering them generous introductory bonuses.
It works like this: new cardholders can earn a large block of points if they spend a certain amount of money in the first few months.
The time frame for these bonuses ranges from one month to six months, and the amount that you need to spend to trigger the bonus ranges from $500 to $5,000. The card that currently offers one of the best intro bonuses, the Chase Sapphire Preferred, rewards new cardholders with points worth about $450 if they spend $3,000 in the first three months. Another option, the American Express's Starwood Preferred Card, gives about $550 in rewards to people who spend $5,000 in the first six months of card ownership.
Is there are catch?
Yes, there are a few pitfalls that can ruin what is, for all intents and purposes, a pretty sweet deal.
The most obvious potential drawback: you have to cross the spending threshold, and you have to do so without spending more than you usually would on your month-to-month expenses. If you’re making extra purchases just to reach the goal amount, you are wasting money. It's like you are spending $3,000 to buy $500. Even if you slept through your high school economics class, you know that that is not a good deal.
Luckily, you can use your card to pay your bills, shop for groceries and buy gas. If you spend more than $1,000 per month on bills and day-to-day expenses, you should be able to reach the threshold easily without any non-necessity purchases.
Also, to get the full value out of the rewards point bonus, you can't carry a balance from month to month. Some cards offer a 0% APR as part of their intro package, but others do not. The interest on $3,000 or $5,000 can be significant enough to eat away at the overall value of your bonus.
Finally, there may be restrictions about how you spend your bonus. You will have to book your vacation using the card, and often you must use a certain airline or hotel chain or even book through the card's travel portal, which may not have the most competitive prices.
Good account management is absolutely necessary
It should go without saying that proper credit card management is imperative when you are pursuing credit card rewards. Paying off the balance every month is really the only option for people who are serious about earning rewards. The money you will lose from interest charges can cancel out the money you save from your rewards points.
You can set up automatic payments online for any card from any company. Once you connect your credit account with your bank account, you can use your card, more or less, like a debit card (automatically transferring money from your checking to pay off the balance at the end of each month).
Get all this right, and you can really reap the rewards, and you will see that, yes, some travel credit cards actually do live up to their hype.
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